Saturday, 30 January 2016

On the DM's Guild; or, Let's be Innovative with the Forgotten Realms

I was never a fan of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. That isn't to say I hated it - I never really read a word of it. I was simply vaguely aware of its existence as a teenager, mainly because of the Drizzt novels that festooned the shelves of the F&SF sections of local bookstores. I don't apologise for sounding snobbish: it just seemed far too much like a substandard, or bog standard, Middle Earth. Why play in Forgotten Realms if you can play MERP? Why have cotton, when you can have silk?

So I know next to nothing about it. Something about Faerun, something about the Underdark, something about Kara-Tur, something about Waterdeep. I did play Baldur's Gate for a bit, which I believe may have been set there, but I didn't play it for long and it only confirmed my suspicions that what was going on wasn't particularly interesting. The exception to this is Al-Qadim, which I enjoyed, but which I honestly never had any idea was even the same world.

That doesn't put me in a fantastic position as regards this new DMs' Guild business. (In case you're not aware what this is: it's either a unique opportunity to self-publish RPG material set in the Forgotten Realms via OBS for real money, or an attempt by WotC to co-opt all the DIY D&D stuff going on, depending on how charitable you're being. Either way, I think we can agree that it surely ought to be entitled the Dungeon Masters' Guild.) But I am nonetheless curious. It strikes me as interesting to experiment with, at least: to reach a new audience, make some cash, and also perhaps even subvert things a little bit.

How to get around the fact that the Forgotten Realms, judging by its extensive wikipedia entries, is both really bland and rather restrictive?

The answer is simple: time travel. WotC haven't stipulated anything about the distant future or distant past. So let me offer some sample DMs' Guild submissions:

1) Fantasy world Japanese people in the fantasy world Nara period explore fantasy world Ainu Moshir. The adventurers are officials from Wa in the ancient past, when the frosty north has yet to be settled or explored. There are strange people up there who worship bears, not to mention, natch, glacier dungeons and symbiants. Civilized PCs explore a wild and dangerous miniature New World.

2) Fantasy Aztecs in the future. So there's a fantasy Mexico in the Forgotten Realms, it seems - full of scorpion men, jaguar men, Yuan-ti, and the rest. It's called Maztica. Fast forward 2,000 years. Now all the scorpion men, jaguar men, Yuan-ti and the rest are putting cybernetic implants in their bodies, riding around in driver-less cars, smoking e-cigarettes, and getting tattoos. The PCs are private investigators solving murders: there is a separate police force and legal system for each of the different race, and the PCs have to work in a fashion hidden from the authorities.

3) Fantasy aboriginal people in survival horror world. It's a million years ago. The Stone Age of some region of Faerun which resembles Australia. The PCs are warriors or shamans with clubs, magical tattoos, and the limited power to travel in the Dream World (the Abyss). But there are things living in the Dream World (i.e. devils and demons) who can enter theirs. Cue the PCs exploring a hostile, barren outback where there are amnizus, cornugons, glabrezus, and mariliths, trying the best they can to defend their people and, even, prosper.

4) Dying Faerun. It's a 5 billion years in the future. Faerun's sun is fading. Only one city remains on the surface. Its defiant inhabitants explore the Underdark in an attempt to survive...

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Random Moon of Jupiter Generator and Three Random Moons

It's more interesting to come up with details for each of the Moons of Jupiter. But I couldn't resist creating a d20 table to spur the imagination. Here it is.

Let's create some moons.

Moon 1: Terrain - living growth. This moon is a forest of toadstools, mushrooms, and other fungi. It has one main antagonist type: an evil intelligence. A roll of 3 indicates beholders. Excellent: a fungus forest in which lurks a beholder hive mother and her many drones. They enslave anybody unfortunate enough to land, and are busy constructing a magical portal by which they can invade other worlds.

Moon 2: Terrain - Icy. A glacial ball hovering in the void. Main antagonist types are fomorians and a lammasu. There is a special condition of 'unstable'. Clearly, the lammasu was placed on this moon to protect an ancient artefact, temple, shrine, monument or captive. The fomorians dwell in caverns in the ice, perhaps plotting its conquest - or a way to get off this icy sphere and to somewhere where they can satisfy their cruel lusts.

Moon 3: Terrain - Icy. Another glacier world. Main antagonist type is salamanders. Curioser and curioser. The salamanders are clearly exiles from the elemental plane of fire. Having committed some obscure crime, they have been sentenced to punishment by their efreeti overlords to live in suffering for 1,001 years in severe and unrelenting cold. They are desperate to escape, or - even better - return their home plane to wreak horrible vengeance on their betrayers.

I love D&D.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Moons of Jupiter Ring Map

Let's think some more about D&D Moons of Jupiter. Let's also establish none of this is based in physics or actual astronomical reality. We're dealing in broad brush strokes.

This is what I am christening a Ring Map. I've arranged the moons of Jupiter into sections of rings. (Not actually related much to their real orbits.) The way it works is as follows.

Every d6 days the innermost ring rotates one section clockwise. (The irregularity is to do with fluidity of the phlogiston, direction of Jovian Winds, etc.) Every 2d6 days, the second ring rotates one section clockwise. Every 3d6 days, the third ring rotates... And so forth. This is not difficult to keep track of - you just make the rolls at the start of the campaign for all the rings, keep a tally of days, and reroll for a given ring on the predetermined rotation date.

Ships are limited in how far they can travel. Ordinary ships can move only as far as the next moon over in any direction before needing to resupply (or running out of aether or whatever). Very expensive, fancy ships can move two. Sailing between moons takes d3 days.

So, for example, imagine the PCs are on Euporie. They want to get to Adrastea because on that rock lives a medusa who owns a magical amethyst which can cure lycanthropy or whatever. They can get there by hopping to Leda, then Europa, and then Adrastea. Each time they have to stop to resupply and each journey risks an encounter with pirates, dragons, slaad raiders, floathing aboleths, Jovian krakens, plogiston sorcerors, and so forth.

On the other hand, imagine the PCs are on Europa. They need to get to Carpo, because they've heard their enemy, the spinagon Malakofrex, is building a fortress there. They could hop from Europa to Carpo, which would take a number of 'moves'. Or they could simply wait until Europa's orbit catches up with Carpo's and make the move in one easy step - perhaps taking the time in between to research Malakofrex's weaknesses and prepare.

Needs more work: the moons which are just code numbers need Greek sounding names, and maybe some empty spaces would be good to make travel in some regions riskier. But serves as a sort of proof of concept.

Fantasy Moons of Jupiter Planetcrawl

Imagine Jupiter with its (as of 2012) 66 moons (subject which has come up before). Now imagine a Spelljammer-esque game of D&D set there. Ships sailing from frigid Europa (planet of frost giants, ice mephits and white dragons) to fiery Io (the kingdom of the Efreeti). Stopping off at tiny rocky Thebe to pick up a potion of Stone to Mud from the duergar who mine that lonely, isolated speck of stone. Plotting a raid on the Necromancer who has made the moon Praxidike his home, where he is guarded by spectres and banshees shrieking into the cold infinity of space. Afterwards feasting with the hook horrors of Callisto, communicating with your hosts through a sverfnebiln interpreter who taps out words to them in code with a complicated system of pebbles tied to his fingers. You hear a rumour from them that on the rings of Saturn lives a gold dragon, who has buried all his treasures in a huge hunk of ice. He is practically invincible, but on far away Pluto there is the shattered remnant of a gelugon's palace, said to house a trident of dragon slaying in its deepest oubliette....

Friday, 22 January 2016

Moshir and the Symbiant Class

I've been doing some more thinking about the Fixed World. (At some point I will also think up a better name for it than this.)

In the North West of the map is a series of islands where it is always winter and always dawn ("C" on the map).

This is described in my notes as:

A group of islands where it is largely always winter and largely always dawn. Surrounded by semi-thawing pack ice. The seas are home to roving, warring tribes of merrow, who hunt seals and group together on the ice. The land is populated by stone giants, to whom the resident human population - eskimos or paleosiberian types - owe fealty. Little grows except lichens and molds (yellow mold, russet mold, etc.), oozes, jellies, and so forth. Some human tribes have symbiotic relationships with these creatures, and allow them to grow on their flesh.

I am keen on developing both these islands and the small continent to the East (marked "D"), in large part because I am obsessed with creating a megadungeon glacier, or is that glacier megadungeon?, but in small part because, well, this:

But let's explore the idea of the inhabitants of Moshir, which these islands are going to be called, having symbiotic relationships with oozes, slimes, jellies and so forth. I should first caveat this by saying that big elements of this are lifted from the now sadly long-defunct Roguelike game, Tales of Middle Earth, which may very well be the greatest computer game ever created.

Symbiant Class

A symbiant is a human being who can charm oozes, slimes, jellies, molds and the like, and, through a dangerous magical process, enter into a life-sharing relationship with such a creature. This is usually done through allowing the life form in question to enter his or her orifices.

A symbiant has d6 hit points and uses the magic-user level progression chart. His prime requisite is CON. He advances in fighting ability and saving throws as does a cleric.

Symbiants have the following abilities.

Level One: Symbiants can cast the special spell, charm ooze, slime or jelly. They can memorise, and cast, this spell once per day. The function is identical to a charm person spell, but acts only upon primitive life forms.

Level Two: Symbiants gain the power to turn oozes, slimes and jellies in a manner similar to a cleric.

Level Three: Symbiants can cast the special spell, share life. This functions as follows:

First, the symbiant must have charmed an ooze, slime or jelly and have it in his thrall. He then casts the share life spell, and allows the life form to enter him through the mouth, nostrils, and so forth. (Or eats it in the case of a mold.) This process takes one day. The symbiant must make a saving throw vs poison if the life form has a number of HD equal to or greater than his number of levels, with a cumulative -1 penalty for each HD beyond his number of levels. If this saving throw fails, both he and the life form die.

Once the symbiant and another life form are sharing their lives, the symbiant gains half of the hit points of the life form. For instance, if the symbiant has 12 hit points, and his green slime has 8, the symbiant from that moment onwards has 16 hit points (as long as he continues to share his life with the green slime).

The reverse of the spell is called expel life, and causes the life form to leave the symbiant's body. This sickens the symbiant for one week per HD of the life form.

Level Four and onwards: At Level Four, the symbiant can use one attack from his life form, once per day. This increases to twice per day at Level Six, three times per day at Level Eight, etc. For instance, if our symbiant is sharing life with a green slime, once per day at Level Four he can invoke the green slime's attack in addition to his own attack during a combat round.

Level Nine: The symbiant gains all the special defences and resistances of his life form.

[Needs more work, but you get the idea.]

Thursday, 21 January 2016

[Actual Play] Cruth Lowlands Campaign: Session 4

The fourth session of the Cruth Lowlands Campaign was a long time coming. For various reasons it dropped off the agenda and it was very hard arranging a resurrection. But it's back now.

Session four was good fun - and strangely enough featured more hireling deaths than monsters, which has to be a first. PCs present:

  • Jason, playing Mixahâm Straji, a 1st level magic user
  • Patrice, playing Dragosta, a 1st level fighter
  • Luke, playing Andy, a 3rd level fighter

The session began with the introduction of a new character, Dragosta, to replace the dead Marm Jo'a. Dragosta is a female barbarian type, with a chain-mail dress and a shield decorated with huge horns. She has gambling debts of 7,000 gp, which is why she needed to join the party.

Initially Andy was not present, so it was just Mixaham and Dragosta, the hirelings Christina, Procopius and Menelaus, and the river pirates Evangelios, Diogenes and Hector. Having reached a natural break in the action from last time, with the Temple of Cronus having been ransacked and a nice reward received as a result, Mixaham and Dragosta decided to investigate nearby caves, known as the Worm's Mouth, which they had heard about from Yokomosok during session one.

They left their cart, and amassed gold, at the Temple of the Elements, and headed off to the cave, which stands at the end of a rocky ravine or chasm. Entering, they managed to clamber their way up a steep scree slope with the help of a lasso, and then investigated what appeared to be a dwarf-made chamber above. Almost immediately they disturbed some creature or creatures which made a horrendous loud chirping or squeaking sound. But they also found some doors. Picking one more-or-less at random, they found it to be locked. Procopius was ordered to barge it down, which he duly did; he then charged through, fell down a flight of stairs, and landed in a heap at the bottom.

It seemed that there were creatures down the stairs, in the darkness, so Dragosta followed. She too slipped on the stairs, which it appeared had been covered in some sort of grease or oil, and fell to the bottom, suffering a minor injury. She looked up and saw two kobolds in the room, menacing them with spears.

Mixaham still had two doses left of his spider climb potion, and used this to clamber into the room by the walls and ceiling, avoiding the grease. The kobolds, seemingly having no stomach for a fight, turned and ran in to another chamber. After the PCs and hirelings had gathered together beyond the greasy stairs, Dragosta, Procopius and Menelaus charged after the kobolds. They found themselves in a room with a murder hole above them, through which two kobolds emptied a large bucket of scorpions, right on their heads. Dragosta made her save, but both Procopius and Menelaus were stung, choking to death on their own tongues.

Dragosta fled back to the others and she and Mixaham hatched a plan to use the spider climb potion to get up into the murder hole and surprise the kobolds. Dragosta slipped inside and killed one of the kobolds in short order; the other meekly surrendered. After numerous threats and clear lies, they were able to get from the kobold the information that there were about twenty kobold males in the caves, plus a number of females, and they were led by a chieftain called Ho El and a shaman called Yezakal. They worshipped a god they referred to as the Mighty Grishnack.

There was no apparent entrance to the murder hole except through the floor, but they also managed to extract from the kobold that there was a secret entrance. They then threw the poor creature to the scorpions and, once this was done, used Mixaham's staff to clear away the scorpions to allow the hirelings to all climb up and join them.

They then tried to open the secret entrance, but found out it was a one-way door which could not be entered through the side they were on. But they also found that there was somebody in a room behind it. Initially, Mixaham (who can speak draconic) tried to pretend he was a kobold, but this wasn't persuasive, so he and Dragosta hit on the plan [DM's note: I was astounded at this] to try to stir up all the kobolds so they would come and attack the murder hole.

This failed miserably, as the kobolds were indeed stirred up, but laid siege to the murder hole instead. With everybody up in the hole it was clear that the group were completely stuck - the kobolds could just starve them to death if they really wanted. So Mixaham and Dragosta decided the only option was parley. They offered to turn to the worship of Grishnack if Yezakal and the other kobolds would let them live. Yezekal and Ho El, instead, offered to let them live if they would go and destroy other creatures who lived in the caves, which they referred to as water demons, who pull unfortunates into an underground lake to drown, then feast on their souls.

Mixaham and Dragosta saw no alternative but to agree, and pledged allegiance to Grishnack and surrendered their weapons and those of the hirelings. The kobolds proved true to their word and allowed the PCs to come down from the murder hole and then reclaim their weapons.

At this point Luke, Andy's player, arrived, so Andy (having been there all along, of course), was able to chime in. The PCs were clearly of the view that they needed to find some way to get out of the caves without having to fight any water demons. They hit upon the idea of pretending they were going to the distant town of Koriszegy to buy a huge amount of salt to pour into the underground lake. The kobolds agreed to this if they left a hostage, and they ended up choosing poor Hector. [DM's note: I rolled a dice for this and was extremely disappointed that it didn't end up being one of the PCs] The deal was that if the PCs did not return within a week with their salt, Hector's throat would be cut. Hector, naturally, begged his boss, Andy, to return.

There was some debate about whether to just run off and leave Hector to his fate, but eventually the PCs came to the conclusion that they ought to at least investigate the possibility of killing the water demons. (There was also considerable discussion of how to come back and get revenge on the kobolds, but they realised they had hired all the hirelings available in Riverfork a few weeks ago, and there were unlikely to be enough left to take on the kobolds, who it seemed also had at least four giant weasels.) They realised that they were on good terms with the Temple of the Elements, who would surely know something about water demons.

The next day they headed back to Riverfork and to the Temple of the Elements. There, they met a sage called Karpi, an expert on elemental water. He surmised that these 'water demons' could be killed either through freezing whatever lake they were in, or casting purify water on it. Either way, it would take a wizard of considerable power. He also reckoned that the 'water demons' had either been summoned by some evil priest or druid to guard something, or the lake which they inhabited was a place where the Elemental Plane of Water nudged up against the Prime Material. He also told them that if they were looking for a wizard of sufficient power, they might ask the Three Faced Wizard, whose tower was three days to the North across dangerous terrain.

The Three Faced Wizard was somebody the PCs had heard of before, and Mixaham had already made it one of his goals to meet this famous archmage. So he was keen to go. Andy was also of the opinion that he owed Hector his loyalty and ought not to just leave him to be killed by kobolds. Dragosta, on the other hand, needed some persuading as to why they needed to risk so much in the name of a hireling. [As Patrice put it, that's like going to find God and then, when you meet him, asking for a good recipe for minestrone] But ultimately he agreed that it might be worth going to meet the Three Faced Wizard anyway.

And at that logical break, the session ended. A lot of negotiation and parlaying this session, and not so much violence. A nice change of pace. Tune in next time for, it seems, an encounter with the infamous Three Faced Wizard.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

On Length

One of the things I like most about this hobby is that everything takes a long time. Running a game session takes hours. Preparing for a campaign takes longer. Plotting out a dungeon or a hex map is painstaking. Writing things for publication is a frustratingly drawn-out process, full of false starts and failures and do-overs. Reading rule-books and digesting them can't be done in an hour.

All of this feels, to me, like an antidote to the world we live in - the web of tweets and video games and work emails and internet arguments and forgettable clickbait bullshit that can drag you down and turn your life into a hollowed-out simulacrum of living if you're not careful. Gaming means devoting time and energy to making and doing things that are good. This is important. There is a sanctuary in craftsmanship. If all the internet activity you involve yourself in day-to-day (staring at your phone, checking your emails, commenting on news articles, reading other people's opinions, losing yourself in the visual and auditory fantasies of youtube, Spotify and tumblr) begins to feel like an obligation, like work, then the role playing hobby is the Sabbath.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

More Aborted Yoon-Suin Fiction, Circa 2009

Here is another Yoon-Suin piece which did not make the final cut. I wrote it early on (it is dated 2009), when a lot of the elements of the setting were still up in the air. There is a lot that's wrong with it, but I think it has a kind of interesting energy about it. I don't appear to have got anywhere near finishing it, although you can probably guess the broad drift of what happens next.


The forest was green, and thick, and endless. Sodden with warm rain which dripped and trickled in a constant downpour from the canopy a hundred metres above. The air felt like a hot cloth pressed against skin, and even when it was just after noon the canopy gloomed all underneath it in dim emerald green light. Ground level was flooded with an ocean of insect sound almost deafening.
          The forest was swollen with life. And yet in recent weeks it had taken five of Yàk è's men to their deaths. They had each starved and died like fish thrown on a shoreline. Feeble gasping and staring eyes. After the last had passed the others had caught a giant gèpà, and things were easier. Yàk è pondered the grimness of fortune in this alien place.
          Now there were but seven of them.

          At dusk, as was their ritual, they rested in hammocks strung above the ground. Spirits were somewhat higher now that food was regular. Three of the men, the ones from Lamarakh, even sang, in their strange alveolar language full of 't's and 'd's and 's's. Yàk è's other men, his Yellow City brothers, lit torches around the circle of their camp. All night these fires would bring insects - huge beetles, fat moths like birds, and tiny bloodsucking flies. Their flutterings and clickings would be a constant low-level torture. But the alternative was darkness, and then the things that sometimes came in the night, and which needed no light to see, would easily kill everyone in the camp.
          "Who will take the watches?" asked Yàk è. "I will be first."
          "I will be second." Jòh Pò, the others had learned, had the sharpest ears. He had been with Yàk è on many journeys, all of them triumphant. Never a big man he was wasted now by hunger and heat. He volunteered for everything, clearly attempting to disguise his horror at his own weakness.
          The third volunteer was one of the Lamarakhi, the tallest of the three. The Yellow City men called him U. His real name was an impossibility for them and he seemed to prefer this abbreviation to the indignity of mispronunciation.
          As darkness surrounded their island of light, they slept. All except Yàk è, sitting in his hammock with three javelins across his lap. He thought about the men who had starved, as he often did, and then his mind went back to the Yellow City and he imagined he was there, in the rooftop garden of the fourth library, with a pipe and poppy seeds, watching the sun rise over the ocean.

          He woke from that dream with the man called U shaking his shoulder. Looked around. It was not yet day. The light from the torches was dim and orange. Flickering. Some mindless winged thing was butting itself repeatedly into the flames.
          The man called U put a finger to his lips, then made the waving motion with his fingers. So, one of the things had come. Yàk è clenched his fists and pressed his teeth together. An old and familiar mixture of excitement and fear.
          Together, he and U woke the others. All the men knew not to make a sound. The hunters could feel the very vibrations of the air. Not that it greatly mattered - they would be smelled out. But it might buy them some time.
          They fanned out around their little circle of hammocks. The blades on their javelins glowed in the light from the fires. Since the others had died, javelins at least had become plentiful. Each man carried three.
          The forest was dark, so very dark, beyond the circle of light. Before he had come to this place Yàk è could scarcely have imagined it. The canopy was so thick that the moonlight could not penetrate. To look into the trees at night was to stare into nothing. A black nothing which thronged with invisible life.
          He turned his head this way and that, trying to spot what U had seen. An endless ululating swell of insect calls washed over them.
          It came silently from the vegetation near Hè Lòk. 
          The Yellow City man had the most fleeting of moments to survive. At once the blackness before him revealed movement. A velveteen, slithering body reared. Huge, wet, horribly graceful. Its maw opened beneath the expressionless, blank, faceless face. Its feelers - long, whip like - reached for him. To Yàk è they looked for a second like a pair of arms spread wide in anticipation of a loving embrace. If they touched Hè Lòk he was as good as dead. But if he moved it would sense him nevertheless.
          He was at the mercy of his companions.
          Yàk è stepped towards Hè Lòk's position and threw his first javelin over hand. It thudded into the hunter's exposed side, slicing through thick skin. An instant later three more javelins hit it from the other flank - the Lamarakhi. Sharp metal punched through flesh.
          Instantly the creature's face began to change. Yàk è saw the quiver of movement. He raised his second javelin and threw wildly, even as  Jòh Pò, Fò Yà and the three Lamarakhi came bounding in the hunter's direction, hurling another volley.
          They were too late. The two openings had already appearing in the hunter's face. Even as the javelins cut into its flesh it was spraying twin streams of liquid which coated Hè Lòk in thick ropes. He had flung himself aside but it did not matter. He did not stand up. As the hunter thrashed itself back into the forest he lay almost motionless, only a leg twitching.
          The others gathered round.
          "He is finished," said Fò Yà. The younger man was a complainer and a fatalist, but for once, Yàk è could not argue. The hunter's liquid was impossible to dissolve or break.
        Hè Lòk gazed up at them. He was glued to the forest floor; the liquid had even sprayed across his face, coating his mouth closed. Only his left leg was free.
          The Lamarakhi gathered together and held each other's hands.
          Yàk è bent down. "We cannot help you, brother," he said.
          Hè Lòk merely stared at him. It was impossible to tell whether forgiveness or anger was in those wide brown eyes.
          Yàk è straightened up. "Who will do it?"
          The man called U stepped forward and drew his knife.
          "Don't let the lozenge touch your skin. Do it quickly."
          U nodded, bent down, and with one quick slice it was done.
Yàk è looked into Hè Lòk's eyes and saw that he was dead. He saw nothing of the blank horror that the starved men's eyes had showed, and for that he was grateful. The hunter would return to claim the body the next night - no other animal would touch it. 
          "A quick end, which we might not have," said Fò Yà. "In a way, he is to be envied?"
          "We lost ten javelins and an intelligent man." Yàk è stepped away from the body. He had not known Hè Lòk well but was saddened. He felt, not for the first time, the forest's indifference. Whether they lived or died meant nothing here.
          "How many more days?" said Jòh Pò.
          "Maybe three."
          "Then the return."
          "We will never leave this forest. You realise this?" Fò Yà was studying the corpse with interested eyes.


The next morning Yàk è opened the journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl, as was his custom, and pored over the Silaish script. Like Lamarakhi it was difficult for him to pronounce the words but he understood their meaning. "The thirty fourth day. As the ground rose we came to monuments in the forest like the menhirs on the River of Crayfish. Except smaller and worn away by the heat of this vile place. Clearly they are of the same or similar makers." Yàk è had never been to the River of Crayfish and knew it only by its name on a map; it was hundreds of leagues away, in high mountains distant in every sense of the word.
          Not for the first time he felt that reading the journal had left him more apprehensive and confused than he had been. Though it was easy enough to be apprehensive and confused that morning. The forest was thick with mist that seemed a tangible thing. Like grey foam strung between the trees.
          "Let's break camp," he said.
          The Lamarakhi had gathered around Hè Lòk's body. The tall one called U was saying something to the others, who Fò Yà had nicknamed The Chin and The Eyes after their most prominent features. They did not have the look of men ready to continue.
          "We should have moved on as soon as the hunter was gone," said Yàk è to Jòh Pò. "This way we start the day with it...fresh in our minds."
          The older man shrugged. "We would have all died in the forest at night."
          "You believe that would have been regrettable?" said Fò Yà, overhearing. His laugh was a derisory cackle.
          "Why are you here, Fò Yà?" said Jòh Pò, true feeling suddenly in his voice for the first time in many days.
          "There is no 'why', there only 'is'."
          "The hunter worm should have taken you instead," Jòh Pò muttered.
           Yàk è watched them both, but knew neither had the energy for more than bickering. In any case he doubted he himself had the energy to say anything to them of value.
          "We go," he said.


The mist grew thicker around them. It was like nothing Yàk è had seen before on earth. As if the very air itself was slowly coalescing into something grey and solid. It lay on the forest like a damp cloak, suppressing all sound. He could hear his own breathing.
          None of them talked. This was common enough and they had often been silent for hours at a time as they travelled. Nevertheless Yàk è could almost feel the men’s' apprehension. They were only six in number now, and it could not be doubted that Fò Yà was right - they would never leave the forest alive. They might reach their destination but the return journey would destroy them.
          He was not even sure any longer why he had come.
          At noon, they reached a slope, as Dahl's journal had predicted. It ran upwards for half a mile, then flattened itself out. When they reached the top they saw things dark in the mist, among the tree trunks. Tall, narrow, and made from stone. The menhirs. They looked like termite mounds on the hills of the aviary's garden where it ran down to the God River; monuments of earth and stone which seemed nevertheless alive.
          There were twelve, arranged in three rows of four.
          "Well, there once were people here, then," said Jòh Pò. "Though I wonder what manner of fools might choose to live in such a place?"
          "The same manner of fool who might choose to come here and try to find out?" Fò Yà approached the nearest stone and laid his hand against it.
          The Lamarakhi had gathered together, their arms linked. They reminded Yàk è of women you might see on Temple Row in summer, examining the incense stalls or buying parasols. Their physical comfort with one another intrigued and repelled him.
          "It is basalt," Fò Yà was saying.
          Yàk è went over. "Basalt? There was once a volcano around here, then."
          "Or they brought it." The younger man appeared already to have lost interest. "There is no way of telling."
            Yàk è stood back, wondering what the three rows signified. Perhaps graves of chiefs or kings. Or monuments to forgotten gods or heroes. Or perhaps there had been beauty in them in the eyes of their creators. Their silence and stillness was undoubtedly impressive.
            Fò Yà had wandered beyond them and was gazing up at the high canopy with a bored expression. Yàk è watched him. The young man was a mystery, all right. He was handsome, strong, intelligent, and his entire bearing was that of a rich and educated city boy. And yet here he was. Diffidence could ruin an entire life.
          There were plenty of men like that in the Yellow City of course. Some of them were fixtures in the lounges and atria of the aviary - men who Yàk è had shared smoke with and held pleasant conversation. They were men whose laziness had made them like shells. Fò Yà's lack of ambition was monstrous, however, and that had taken him beyond useless dilettancy to outright delinquency, and thus here. Yàk è was sure of it.            


Reluctant to stay near the standing stones, they pressed on after making only cursory sketches. Yàk è took out Laxmi Guptra Dahl's journal again. They were now near the end of the journey, and the man's writings. Yàk è had read the entries dozens of times, but he went over the final two once more. They were carefully etched in Dahl's pedantic hand; nothing about them hinted at any nervousness or fear. The expedition had spent an uneventful night just beyond the stones, and from there had reached the Holes unmolested. Their doom had crept up on them unawares.
          At least when our doom creeps up on us, we won't be unawares, Yàk è thought to himself, and then suddenly found himself chuckling.
          "You are laughing about our impending death?" said Fò Yà.
          "How did you guess?"
          "What else is there to laugh about?"
          Yàk è chuckled again. The Lamarakhi glanced at turned around and looked at him with uneasy smiles.
          "I would kill for some poppy seeds," said Yàk è.
          "Poppy seeds," said the man they called U, showing a rare willingness to use the Yellow City tongue. "When we return."
          "A thousand of them," said Fò Yà.
          They camped in a clearing where a tree fall had created a space in the vegetation. The huge body of the tree lay like some slumbering rock-hewn being on the ground. Knowing that there might be beetle grubs burrowed inside they spent some time smoking them out, and then chewing on the resultant tasteless catch as evening fell.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Revenant and the Post-Apocalypse

I saw The Revenant last night and loved it: I thought it was the best film I'd seen at the cinema in a very long time. It was quite the antidote to The Force Awakens - brutal and uncompromising but also beautifully crafted and like nothing I'd seen before. It's worth watching for the cinematography alone, but what I liked most about it were the elements of survival horror (the now-infamous bear attack scene is more terrifying than anything you'll see in the average slasher flick): it very closely resembled Mel Gibson's underrated masterpiece Apocalypto in that respect, although The Revenant is less of a chase and more of a hunt. It was in all respects right up my alley.

I think The Revenant and Apocalypto work exceptionally well as companion-pieces, because (although this theme is obviously more heavily stated by Mel Gibson) as well as being survival horror epics, they are also very much in the post-apocalyptic genre. Both film-makers have understood very well that North America after 1492 is best conceptualised in that vein - as a continent which has experienced something akin to a nuclear war or alien invasion. Civilization has been shattered, somewhere between two-thirds and nine-tenths of the population have died, and the survivors are fighting over the fragments of what is left and trying to cling on to whatever vestiges of their humanity remain. In RPG terms, this is Gamma World, not D&D.

I'm more alive to this comparison because I've recently been re-reading Charles C. Mann's 1491, although my copy has the blander name "Ancient Americans" (perhaps this is the British title). More than any other author I've read - although I'm by no means an expert - Mann manages to bring across a sense of the scale of what took place in the Americas in the early colonial period. There is a big dispute about the numbers, for instance, but it seems fairly likely from the evidence available that before Pizarro had even arrived in the Inca empire, and before most South Americans had ever seen a white person, up to half of the population of the empire may already have died of smallpox, brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish and spread from Central America. It was thus an event of similar size and consequence to the Black Death in Europe - an episode which had brought an entire continent to its knees in an orgy of communal blood-letting. No wonder the Incas were uniquely vulnerable to Spanish invaders - Pizarro arrived almost exactly the moment a decisive battle was taking place between competing factions for the throne of the Inca empire: a society where one out of every two people had recently died.

This pattern, of course, was repeated all over the continent. European diseases killed the vast majority of the population - whether 60% or 90%, either way it was a disaster the like of which has never been seen before or since. As Mann puts it, very poignantly:

Living in the era of antibiotics, we find it difficult to imagine the simultaneous deaths of siblings, parents, relatives and friends. As if by a flash of grim light, Indian villages became societies of widows, widowers, and orphans: parents lost their children, and children were suddenly alone. Rare is the human spirit that remains buoyant in a holocaust. "My people have been so unhappy for so long they wish to disincrease, rather than to multiply," a Paiute woman wrote in 1883. A Lakota winter count memorialized the year 1784 with a stark image: a pox-scarred man, alone in a tipi, shooting himself.

According to the second half of Mann's book, the kind of wilderness we see in The Revenant is a product of this catastrophe. The Americas, North and South, were relatively densely populated in 1491, and what we now think of as "wild" areas were actually largely quite carefully managed through the use of slash and burn agricultural techniques. Undergrowth in forests was kept deliberately clear and gaps between trees maintained. This is even true of Amazonia. Early explorers discovered a thickly-populated land with large settlements - even cities. Gaspar de Carvajal discovered a region deep in the Amazon basin which was so densely populated he passed twenty villages in the course of one day, and in one place saw a settlement that "stretched for five leagues without there intervening any space from house to house". The Amazon jungle we know now is a place which has been denuded of its human population, as are the great forests and plains of North America (like, it turns out, much of Siberia and the Highlands of Scotland: artificial wildernesses created by disease and ethnic cleansing rather than naturally-occurring ones).

The Revenant, deliberately or otherwise, brings this sense across very well. The Montana of 1823 was wild and inhospitable but this is because a hundred years or so ago almost everybody died, and the tiny pieces of society left over have been reduced to hostile, antagonistic bands of depressed and weary people. The scenes amongst the Arikara bring that across very movingly: Wikipedia has a source suggesting that their population had been reduced to 20% of its former size by smallpox around 1800 or so - watching their behaviour in the film, you can believe it.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The City & The City & The City & The City

Patrick S pointed out that there are places on the Fixed World Map where you get intersections between different time "zones" - which oddly enough echoes recent posts about Lewis Carroll's thoughts on day and night.

To illustrate, if you take the Fixed World Map, you'll notice that there are two places in particular where you get four different zones intersecting: the place where O, P and Q meet, and the place where O, L, M and R meet.

The place where O, P and Q meet is particularly interesting. (I should have broken 'O' into two zones, but forgot.) Here, you get a confluence between:

the North part of O (always dawn, always spring - a vast plain dotted with lakes, each ruled by a vodyanoi prince and his human fisherman serfs)
the South part of O (always dawn, always winter - divided between were-raven lords, each of whom acts as a benevolent human lord over his human subjects)
P (always night, always winter - a place where nothing grows, and little lives except xorn and xaren and the hook horrors who hunt them, and the occasional lich, archmage, or secretive undead)
Q (always night, always spring - a land of sverfneblin republics who live off fungus, and the grimlocks and troglodytes who prey on them)

What kind of city would grow up in such a place?

I call it The City & The City & The City & The City in honour of a book by China Mieville which I've never actually read. Here is its map (partially borrowed from here:

A is the sverfneblin quarter: a place of many fungus gardens and buildings which extend far below the surface of the earth. The river here is semi-frozen and filled with blind catfish and pale eels which the sverfneblin use to supplement their diet.

B is the vodyanoi quarter: largely populated by humans but containing three or four large lakes, each of which contains a vodyanoi princeling and his family. Being the warmest and lightest quarter of the city, it is also the only place where trees and plants grow, and there are many parks and green places.

C is the were-raven quarter: again, largely populated by humans but ruled by an extended aristocracy of were-raven lords and their families. It frequently snows but the permanent golden light of dawn gives it some warmth; the river flows freely.

D is the dead quarter: a frozen, frigid place where the river is permanently frozen and nothing can grow. It is ruled by a collection of outcast mages, demonologists and necromancers and their various slaves.

The City & The City & The City & The City is a free city, where anybody can come to do trade. Representatives from each of the four quarters meet once each lunar month on the island in the centre of the river. Here they discuss matters of state and renew their vows to maintain peace. Of course, that doesn't stop them plotting against each other and jostling for power on a more-or-less continual basis...

Thursday, 14 January 2016

More Thoughts on the Fixed World: Or, Yes This Setting Involves Deadly Puddings

This afternoon when I should have been working and responding to emails, I instead spent an inordinate amount of time expanding and elaborating on yesterday's post. Below is a better map, keyed with very rough details.

The Fixed World is based around two design principles:

1. This is non-scientific. Seasons and times of day are permanent but nothing has to make sense according to the laws of physics. It's just a fantastical conceit.
2. Only obscure or obscure-ish Monster Manual races and creatures allowed (and humans).

Darker dotted shading is where it is always night. Lighter dotted shading it is always dawn/dusk. No shading it is always day. 

Grey indicates winter. Green in the north is Autumn. Green in the south is spring. No colour is summer.

A - Always night, always summer. Warm and dark and perfect for fungi - meaning myconid and vegepygmy civilizations and huge, tree-like mushroom in vast forests. The tiny island to the south is a huge breeding colony for gloomwings, and in the sea caves dotted around the coasts live aboleth princes plotting hate.  

B - Always night or dusk, always autumn. Cold, grim, bleak. Still plenty of fungi, but on a smaller scale, and very slow-growing vegetation. Home to a nation of galeb duhr whose knowledge and philosophies are endless - but develop very slowly.

C - A group of islands where it is largely always winter and largely always dawn. Surrounded by semi-thawing pack ice. The seas are home to roving, warring tribes of merrow, who hunt seals and group together on the ice. The land is populated by stone giants, to whom the resident human population - eskimos or paleosiberian types - owe fealty. Little grows except lichens and molds (yellow mold, russet mold, etc.), oozes, jellies, and so forth. Some human tribes have symbiotic relationships with these creatures, and allow them to grow on their flesh.

D - A big island where it is always winter and always daytime. It is divided between a handful of cloud giant lords, who rule over the frost giants and yetis who live inland, and the eskimo/saami-type human tribes by the coast. The seas are home to selkie kingdoms. 

E - A tiny island where it is always winter and always night. The frigid home of the beholders.

F - Similarly, an island of permanent dark and cold. In caves under the surface live the derro; above ground roam deadly puddings and various oozes, which can lie dormant for centuries if necessary before finding sustenance. 

G - In the north of this big island it is always autumn and always dusk. The mountains are inhabited by dragons - white, red, and the different varieties of gem dragons. Here there is also a kingdom of Aarakocra who build strange monuments on the high mountain glaciers. In the south it is warmer - always summer but always dusk. Perfect conditions for su-monsters, who form psionicistocracies in the dim heat.

H - Always summer, always dusk. Thick forest peopled by tabaxi and lizard man tribes.

I - Here, it is always summer, and also largely day time (except in the East, where human civilizations flourish) - more specifically, a sweltering afternoon. Plants grow to huge sizes - skyscraper-sized trees; grass the size of trees in our world - and the mighty forests throng with giant insects, grippli, tasloi, bullywugs and the like. In the seas are reef giants and locathah polities, and in the sky fly couatl princes.

J - An archipelago ruled by rakshasa. The sea is a vast coral reef where there are morkoths, were-moray-eels, tritons, and so on. 

K and L - Huge savannahs and deserts where dinosaurs roam. In places gith sultanates domesticate these beasts for purposes of war and labour. Towards the coasts are harpy queendoms who war incessantly with the gith and each other.

M - The coasts and islands here - where it is spring and always daytime - are perfect for human agriculture and civilization to flourish. In the bountiful sea an unending conflict is fought between sahuagin and aquatic elves. In the west, towards the centre of the continent, are huge plains populated by centaur and wemic bedouins. 

N - Here it is always winter and always day. It is ruled by a seawolf prince and his ever-expanding pack of subjects, who grow each year as they raid the human lands to the north (in M). In the seas there is an ixitxachitl empire, rivals of the kuo-toa theocracy to the west (see O).

O - Always winter, always dawn. Misty and covered in frost. The land around the coast is divided between a dozen were-raven lords, each of whom rules his human subjects as a benevolent feudal lord, and each of whom is bound to the others by ancient pacts of alliance. Further north is a vast plain - ever spring and ever dawn - which is dotted with lakes. Each lake is home to a vodyanoi prince and his human fisherman serfs. In the south, the cold seas are home to a kuo-toa theocracy.

P - Always winter, always night. Nothing grows, little lives except xorn and xaren who burrow through the rock, and the hook horrors who hunt them in the cold darkness. Here and there a lich, human arch-mage, or other being of great power may have fashioned a fortress of solitude to avoid prying eyes.

Q - Always night, always spring. Dark, but warm enough for fungus to grow. This is harvested by the population of various sverfneblin republics, who can live on the surface, under the starlight, rather than underground. In turn, the sverfneblin are hunted and preyed-upon by quaggoths, grimlocks and troglodytes.

R - Always dawn, always summer. A place of permanent fog. Naturally, a land where fog giants and mist dragons call home. The pine forests are full of spiders and ettercaps. The mist dragons ponder existence in dim, grey lakes. The fog giants hunt spiders amidst the silent trees. 

S - The huge, verdant ocean, home to whales that grow to lengths of 100 yards or more, and plankton blooms bigger than a country. Zaratan naturally also float these seas. 

T - Frigid seas where it is always day but always winter. Here there are gargantuan jellyfish the size of islands - cold, vast intelligences floating eternally in the light of the sun.

U - Seas where it is always winter and always night. Permanently frozen. A place where there is almost no life except deep on the sea floor where unknown things cluster around ocean vents. Here, where there is no light and no warmth, are the palaces of the yuguloths.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Incomplete Notes on a Setting Which Came to Me While Waiting for a Train

There is a world where the sun does not move. Where you are geographically from East to West dictates whether it is night, day, dusk, dawn, and so on.

At the same time, where you are from North to South dictates whether it is spring, summer, autumn or winter. Imagine it as a kind of graph, with a few illustrative examples of lands within it.

Island 1: Always night. A barren and frigid place where nothing grows. In the South it is slightly warmer than the North.

Island 2: Always noon and always in the middle of summer. An extremely verdant and fertile place (depending on levels of rainfall - could be a blasted desert).

Island 3: Always autumn and split between dusk and night. In the West there is some growth and life; in the East there is night.

Island 4: Always night and always winter - basically the Arctic in midwinter.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Problem of Play-By-Post

I've run and played in a good few play-by-post (and play-by-email) games over the years; in fact, I credit a couple of play-by-email games with getting me back into RPGs in my mid-late 20s when I was living in Japan and wanted to get back into the hobby, but didn't know how.

A couple of times I've been involved in something very long-running. I ran a Planescape campaign via a Yahoo Group for nearly three years, between around 2004-2007, and was part of several long-running games run by others (one is still alive and well after 11 years, and I still get the emails, although I'm not an active part of it anymore). Yet for the most part, I've discovered that play-by-post is basically a bit rubbish. I don't feel like I'm very good at running such games and the experience is often slow and dull. I don't blame anybody in particular for this, because I've always found that everybody involved approaches the project in good faith, but there's something about the format which makes it easy to get excited about initially, but equally as easy to run out of steam.

Also, let's face it, there's a clear hierarchy of methods for playing RPGs, all other things being equal. At the top is the regular face-to-face group. Next in line is the regular real-time internet group played via roll20 or whatever (and I'd probably include play-by-chat alongside it). After that comes the face-to-face one-shot, and after that the real-time internet one-shot. And then comes PBEM and PBP.

However, that's not to say that play-by-post is without merit. From my experience with the format, I'd say it has the following benefits (not including the practical benefit that it allows you to play a game very conveniently, from the comfort of your own home, in your underpants, while eating blocks of cheese).

1. Because it is slow and fiddly to do anything that involves rules, the "game" element of the RPG gets critically diminished when doing a PBP, but because it is text-based and there are no distractions (uncharitably, because it's not really all that much fun), the "role playing" element of the RPG comes to the fore. Shorn of conversation, jokes, scribbling things on bits of paper, eating, drinking, etc., the game feels "purer"; players tend to identify with their character more strongly and invest in the game world more completely as a general rule. That has its drawbacks (it's less fun), but also its advantages if you want to be a bit more serious about things (and view that as being fun).

2. The DM can almost make things up as he goes along, reacting to what the players do, because there's no real immediate time pressure.

This means that there are three types of game for which I think PBP would really shine:

The one-on-one game. A DM and one of his mates could really easily do something interesting and different with the one-on-one format. A big problem with PBP is waiting for people to post. One-on-one has no issue there - the game moves at its own pace - and if anything is even more flexible than a face-to-face conversation: through G+ or emails or whatever you could run a game more-or-less constantly as a kind of back-and-forth. It would by necessity have to be quite different from a group face-to-face session, but I could see this working really well for a mystery or investigation-based game.

The Wild Cards model. If a group of friends wanted to develop a shared world a la Zelazny, GRRM and Pat Cadigan, you could absolutely do it through a rotating DM-ship PBP. Every month (or whatever) a different DM takes over and you run a new campaign with different characters set in the same world, or something similar.

The Birthright/Diplomacy model. Each player is the king of some realm, or the boss of a mafia group, or the CEO of a company, or whatever. They are all competing with each other and somebody acts as the central DM. The value-added of PBP being that you simply can't run a game like that in face-to-face sessions very easily, because each individual's turn might take ages to run, and because of the potential for spying.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - a (Grumpy) Review

[Spoilers, etc.]

I watched the new Star Wars film tonight. I'd been a bit reticent about going to see it, because the hype was frankly irritating me (before it was even released it had already come to feel as though actually watching the film was a sort of ancillary activity in the midst of all the pressure to GET EXCITED and BUY THINGS). But of course I was always going to see it, and tonight dragged my unfortunate wife along with me. (My wife is pretty laconic; her main observation was "So it seems Yoda is a woman now," which I think summarised the entire film pretty well.)

Anyway, I did enjoy it. JJ Abrams knows how to make an entertaining flick, which it was. It was probably in the noisms 3 1/2 star range, but I am unreasonably difficult to please when it comes to films. I think the best and most important thing about it was that it wiped clear the memory of the prequels like some sort of magic solvent - it was like the anti-Attack of the Clones (which is not just the worst of the prequels but one of the worst films ever made...but let's not get started on that). Star Wars has come home: this is what The Phantom Menace should have been, but wasn't. It was also excitingly put together and actually quite beautiful in its way: some it was genuinely stunningly gorgeous to look at. There were some really inventive and fun moments, especially on Tatooine, sorry Jakku. I thought Harrison Ford did a creditable job, as did Carrie Fisher, and, come on, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to get a kick out of seeing Chewie, C3P0 and R2D2 on the big screen again.

That said, there were problems. I have avoided reading anything about the film, and haven't really seen anything in the way of reviews or commentary, but something tells me the choice of lead may have been hotly debated on the internet, with the battalions of moronic Men's Rights Activists doing battle from their mothers' basements against the holier-than-thou "About time too!" political correctness brigades. I hope that hasn't disguised the fact that it doesn't matter at all that the lead should be a woman but it really matters that whoever is playing the lead should be able to act. And I'm afraid Daisy Ridley just isn't a very good actress. It would be nice if she was, but her performance very strongly reminded me of Orlando Bloom's in the Pirates of the Caribbean films - pretty to look at, but sort of empty. Her delivery was flat and unconvincing and her emotional range mostly consists of widening her eyes and either smiling or crying.

(Although, in her defence, she is poorly served by the character of Rey, who does have the ring of Luke Skywalker about her. Like most people, I think, I always smelled a rat with Luke as a kid: George Lucas really wants you to love the goody two-shoes hero, but everybody prefers Han Solo. Luke's just a bit of a boring cipher until late in Empire. I get the same vibe off Rey - I'd have much preferred to spend more time in Fin's company, because the turncoat storm trooper idea is actually an interesting one. Perhaps because it's one of the only novel things in the entire film, but more on that below.)

A more significant problem is the plot, though, which I have to say was really just a bit piss poor. There's a Death Star but bigger and they have to blow it up with X-Wings again; the Death Star-but-bigger has a planet-destroying Big Fuckoff Laser on it again, but this time the Big Fuckoff Laser can destroy five planets at a time; there's Yoda again but this time as a pseudo-Asian old woman; there's the Emperor again but this time he's bald and really big; there's problems of parentage again but this time it's the other way round and the son is the bad guy. I understand that echoing previous plot threads is part of the fun of a series, but this really felt as though the writers were just working off a Star Wars By The Numbers book. They simply ought to have done better.

I also wasn't convinced at all by either Kylo Ren or Snoop or Snape or whatever the Emperor Mark II is called. Kylo Ren was well acted, and I liked the moment with Han Solo at the end, even if you can see what is coming from a mile away as it barrels down the railway tracks of the plot towards you, tooting its horn and bellowing, "I am a twist!" But he already seems to have been rendered completely non-threatening by the fact that the ever-competent heroine simply bests him at every possible moment. What's a villain worth if he gets his arse kicked by the main character before the story has even got going? I didn't understand the point of the fight scene in the forest at all: clearly every rule of story-telling you could possibly name would dictate that it was Rey who should have been saved from certain death by the appearance of the crevasse rather than the other way round. Otherwise what's left to get excited about? She's basically won already.

Emperor Mark II was the thing I liked least about the film. In fact, I actively despised that character. The CGI was jarring in the context of a film which was deliberately trying to retreat from that, but in any case, what is it with the CGI faces of villains in movies? They all look the same. Snoop/Snape's face looks more or less exactly like Gollum's, whose face looks more or less exactly like all of the CGI nasties in the Peter Jackson Tolkien films. And they still can't get the mouth and lips right. Making him appear as a kind of giant (although I assume this is because he is in the form of a hologram) seemed almost like an admission on the part of the film makers that they knew he was fundamentally a shit character. They had to think of something.

I have a few minor quibbles. In the first of the JJ Abrams Star Trek films, you couldn't really understand all the details of the plot, it seemed, without having first read all sorts of extraneous comics and other bullshit. (Trust me: the motivations and actions of the Eric Bana Romulan make absolutely no sense if you just watch the film on a prima facie basis.) The Force Awakens wasn't quite as bad in this regard, but it did have its moments - for instance, what was all that about with those five planets being destroyed? Why those five planets? Who was living there? Another example: it seems you still have the Republic (although at some point Big Shouty Bad General Guy starts declaring that "this is the day the Republic is over", or something), but you also have this thing called "the Resistance"? How does that all fit together? It's very important to avoid infodump in films, but film makers shouldn't try to get away with that by just leaving all the details to the hard-core nerds who can be bothered learning all the Extended Universe stuff.

The other minor quibble: the bit where the storm trooper decides to drop his gun and pull out some sort of force-baton device so that he can duke it out in melee with Fin for shits and giggles rather than just, er, shoot him. What the fuck?

So, a fun film, but they'll have to do a lot better with Episode VIII if they want to get a coveted Monsters & Manuals Academy Award.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Teaser: The Peridot

I have all sorts of projects in the pipeline, but the one that is most near to the completion is one I have not talked about much before: The Peridot.

The Peridot is a 'zine, published on roughly a quarterly basis. It includes adventure locations and maps, NPCs, monsters, spells and magic items for use in games, as well as an entire unique mini-setting in each issue. Some of its contents are Yoon-Suin related; most are not. It contains the occasional piece of fiction. It typically has more than 50, and less than 100, pages of content.

There will be both a subscription model for The Peridot and a method of simply buying it on an ad hoc basis. Await further instructions.

Here is the prototype cover for Issue #1.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Generic Cyberpunk 2020 Bastard System: Fantasy Edition - Multiple Opponent Combat

Long-term readers may remember the epic duel between John Red and Bill Blue I fought out as a proof-of-concept for GCp2020BS: FE. I've recently been thinking about how to handle combat between multiple opponents when combatants are armed with shields - my initial thoughts being that there needed to be a complicated system for establishing who could defend against who. Actually, though, it doesn't need to be that complicated: the rule for shields can just be that you can automatically block against the front and shield side, and not behind or to the weapon side. Flank or rear attacks only allow you to use your REF in defence, with no roll permitted.

Let's demonstrate. Yan the Yellow takes on Gary the Green and Malcolm the Mauve. To make things a bit equal, we'll make Yan the Yellow a hard knock:

Yan the Yellow: REF 10, BODY 8 (BTM-2), Combat Sense +5, Swords +5, Brawling +4, Dodging+3. He wears steel leg greaves and arm greaves (SP 14), a steel cap (SP 12) and a breast plate (SP 16), and carries a wooden shield (SP 14). His weapon is a long sword (2d6).

Gary the Green: REF 8, BODY 6 (BTM 0), Combat Sense +3, Bludgeoning Weapons +4, Brawling +3, Dodging +2. He wears heavy leather leg and arm greaves (SP 6), a steel helmet (SP 16) and a chain mail shirt (SP 12). He carries a wooden buckler (SP8). His weapon is a warhammer (1d6+2).

Malcolm the Mauve: REF 8, BODY 6 (BTM 0), Combat Sense +4, Spears and polearms +5, Brawling +3, Dodging +2. He wears the same armour as Gary the Green, and carries a wooden shield (SP 14) and a spear (1d6).

The combat begins with Yan facing off against Gary and Malcolm, who are both in front of him.

First Round, Initiative: YY 20, GG 17, MM 15.

Yan acts first. Realising that if he is outflanked he's in serious trouble, he decides to strike quickly and hit the spear-wielding Malcolm. He springs forward with his sword, going for the left leg, rolling a 8[-4 for a called shot, -3 for wielding a shield]+REF+Swords for 16 total. Malcolm's defence roll is 5+REF+Dodging, for 15. Yan gets a hit, doing 8 damage. Because he is using a sword, Malcolm's heavy leather leg greaves are at half SP, so they only diminish the damage by 3. Malcolm takes 5 points of damage to the left leg. A vicious cut that slices into his thigh. He has to roll a stun save at -1, and rolls a 5, just making it. But he is at -2 to REF from the wound. His leg greave is now SP 5.

Now it is Gary the Green and Malcolm the Mauve's turns. Gary charges forward swinging his warhammer. He's just aiming to occupy Yan while Malcolm maneuvers round. But he rolls a 10[No penalty for using a buckler]+REF+Bludgeoning Weapons, for a total of 22, to which he can add another 1d10 thanks to the critical success. His final score is 28. This is more than enough for Yan's defence roll of 3+REF+Dodging. Gary'swarhammer slams into Yan's shield for 8 damage. This is armour piercing against his shield, which is effectively SP 7. Yan suffers 1 point of damage to his left arm from the powerful blow (his BTM does not affect this: you always take at least 1 point of damage from a penetrating hit). He makes the stun save easily. Yan's shield is now SP 13.

Malcolm attempts to perform two actions this turn, in order to move around to Yan's right and attack his unprotected flank. He skirts around the two combatants and then jabs at Yan with his spear. He has a hefty negative modifier: -3 from shield use, -3 from this being a successive action, and -2 to his REF from his wound. To top this off he rolls a 1, for a grand total of 1[-6]+[REF-2]+Spears and polarms=4. Ylan does not have a defence roll, using only his REF score, as he is being attacked from the side, but this is 10. Malcolm misses.


Second Round, Initiative: YY 21, GG 14, MM 14.

Yan knows he's in trouble and decides there is only one thing for it: to turn to face Malcolm and try to maintain the attack on his weakened left leg. He rolls a 7[-4 for called shot, -3 for wielding a shield]+REF+Swords, making 15. Malcolm's defence roll is 3+[REF-2]+Dodging, making 9. Yan hits him again in the leg, this time for a whopping 10 damage. Malcolm's greave reduces this by 3, but it's still a critical injury. He has now taken 15 points of damage in total and rolls a 9 for his stun save, failing spectacularly. He slumps to his knees, seeping blood all over the earth.

But Yan has turned his right flank to Gary. This means that Gary can, in this turn, move around and attack from the rear if he is willing to take a -3 modifier to his attack. He does this, stepping around Yan as his comrade falls, and delivering another blow with his warhammer to Yan's unprotected rear. He rolls 7[-3 from a successive action]+REF+Bludgeoning Weapons=16. This beats Yan's REF of 10. Gary did not specify a hit location, and rolls an 8, for right leg. He does 6 damage. Yan's greaves are half SP against a warhammer, but still, the hit does not penetrate. His right leg SP drops to 15.

Third Round, Initiative: YY 16, GG 16. In a roll-off, GG wins.

Gary wins initiative and decides that before Yan can react he's going to whack him in the head. He rolls 10[-4 for a called shot]+REF+Bludgeoning Weapons=18. Yan, who still has his back to Gary, can only use his REF in defence. Gary wins easily and does 8 damage. Yan's steel cap is half SP against this, so Yan suffers 2 points of damage, which doubles to 4 for a head shot. This then reduces to 2 from Yan's BTM. He makes his stun save.

Now it is Yan's turn. He turns around and makes an attack, again going for the left leg since it served him so well last time. He rolls 1[-4 from a called shot, -3 for a successive action, -3 from using a shield)+REF+Swords, making 6. There is no point rolling for Gary's defence, as the attack will miss whichever way you construe it. Yan is clearly taking a wild swing after spinning round to face his attacker.

Meanwhile, Malcolm is staggering to his feet (or foot) having successfully made a further stun save. He is critically hurt and all his main stats are halved, but he can move...

Fourth Round, Initiative: YY 21, GG 14, MM 15

Yan attacks Gary's legs again. He scores 15. Gary's defence is 14 and Yan hits for 9 damage, which reduces to 6. Yan foins his sword tip into Gary's knee. Gary staggers but does not go down; his REF is now at -2.

Malcolm has managed to crawl clear, trailing blood as he does so. Gary, still full of fight, takes another mighty swing at Yan. He rolls a 20. Yan's defence is 17. Gary hits the right leg again for 5 damage, denting Yan's armour there and taking it down to 14.

Fifth Round, Initiative: YY 18, GG 17.

Yan is determined to finish the fight. He scores a 23 against Gary's defence of 14 and again jabs his sword into Gary's leg, for 3 more points of damage. This time, Gary goes down, bleeding heavily, failing his stun save.

It is then a simple matter for Yan to finish off Gary and then stalk down Malcolm as he sees fit.

Thoughts: It's quite fun, but needs tweaking. Warhammers need to do more than 1d6+2 damage. Maybe 1d6+4. And I think I might make it a rule that all bludgeoning weapons do 1 point of cumulative damage irrespective of whether they penetrate armour, to represent the bone-jarring impact of a massive hammer hitting your steel-encased flesh.

Also: probably way more fun and bloody with a Dune-esque nude knife-fight.